Monday, May 2, 2011

The Farther One Travels

Without going out of my door
I can know all things on earth
With out looking out of my window
I could know the ways of heaven

The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows

As I was traveling back home from work a while ago, this song came up on my iPod.  I confess that with somewhere around thirty gigs of only somewhat organized music, I had never before heard it.

I was struck by the lyrics of this song when I heard it that first time.  It reminded instantly of something a close mentor and professor of mine once told me: “The moment I received my doctoral diploma, I realized just how much I don't know.”  What a profound thought.

Perhaps I was always busy concentrating on specific things, but since I graduated college a year ago, I have felt the same way.  The effect was significantly amplified when I got married and then moved to Japan last summer.  The culture shock was like being hit by a tsunami of the unfamiliar.  And it was sink or swim.

I am swimming.  As hard as I can.

The language barrier is being steadily dissolved  day by day.  I am picking up new words and learning to communicate in Japanese bit by bit.  The learning curve is high, but the going can be slow. 

Besides the language, the cultural idiosyncrasies have also become routine.  I am used to them.  Bowing constantly (I am really not kidding.), cleaning time during school, paying bills at the convenience stores, banking at the post office, etc.

While these things were-and still can be-a challenge, I enjoy them.  But what I enjoy the most of all are the people.  I am constantly surprised by the people I meet.  What surprised me most initially was how apologetic they were for their (usual) lack of English proficiency.  It made me feel so bad.  I knew next to no Japanese and here I was in their country and they were apologizing to me for not knowing my language. 

I fully understand that English is the most recognized international language. (That is partly why Karl and I are here teaching it.) But I felt like such a jerk for not knowing more Japanese when I first got here.  I think if they hadn’t been so nice and apologetic for something that was completely not their fault, it would have actually made me feel better.

Now that I do know a fair amount of conversational Japanese, it is much less daunting to do normal things like go out to eat.  One of our favorite places to go is the dive bar, 太田ホルモン (Ota Horumon).  The owner, who everyone lovingly calls Papa San, is one of the sweetest guys I have ever met.  Every time we eat there, he takes time-when he’s not cooking-to talk to us (all in Japanese) and also gives us free food.  Just this last weekend he invited us, and all our friends, to his annual beer garden party at his house.  What a generous soul!

During my time teaching at Saiei International (an English conversation school), I had the opportunity to teach adult students.  The one adult student that stands out in my mind was an elderly lady.  She was absolutely fascinating.  I think she was about seventy or so.  She was from west Japan: either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, I don’t remember which.  When she was a very young girl, her father decided to move his family outside of the city into the countryside.  He said he just had this feeling he should do so… The day after they moved, the atomic bomb was dropped.  They watched as the mushroom cloud rose above what used to be their home.

Since I recently changed schools, I have had the pleasure of meeting many new people.  One of them is the 校長先生 (kocho sensei-principal) of Hachigata Elementary School.  He is one of the most interesting people I have met since moving to Japan.  He is darn near fluent in English so I am able to have relatively normal conversations with him, although sometimes sentence structure can be a bit interesting. 

One of the first times I met him, he sat down across from my desk and told me about how much he loved Americans and the USA.  He personally thanked me and my country for dropping the atomic bombs on his country in 1945.  He was a young child at the time.

He went on to tell me that his grandparents explained to him that the Japanese people should be thankful for the Americans and what they did to Japan.  They told him that the Japanese Emperor and military were vicious and had evil motives.  And despite the atrocious aftermath of the atomic bombs, it had to be done in order to stop the relentless tyranny of the Japanese Emperor. 

…I didn’t really know what to say.  I guess I never thought I would have a Japanese person thank me for what my country did to theirs at the end of WWII.  There is no doubt that the call from President Harry Truman to drop the atomic bombs caused countless civilian deaths instantly and for years afterwards.  However, what Kocho Sensei and his grandparents-who lived through the war in Japan-said provides an extremely interesting and valid viewpoint that begs the question: What would have happened had the atomic bombs not been dropped?

Hearing these people’s stories is so enlightening…enlightening in the sense that I am reminded just how complex and multi-faceted life is.  Everyone truly has their own individual opinions and beliefs, which stem from their experiences throughout life.   And this is constantly in flux as life moves and changes.

The song by the Beatles says that the farther you travel, the less you know.  I would add to that with the more I am aware of, the more humble I become.  There is a continuous realization that there is always more to learn, different viewpoints to consider and experiences to be had. 
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  1. A wonderfully enlightening post.
    Thank you!

  2. Wow.....that is soooo interesting!! What a different viewpoint!